Meet the candidates, part 2: Marfa city council, plus state senate districts 19 and 29

Meet the candidates, part 2: Marfa city council, plus state senate districts 19 and 29

FAR WEST TEXAS — As Texas enters the final week of early voting and Election Day on Tuesday, November 3 approaches, The Big Bend Sentinel spoke with candidates in three races for part two of our Meet the Candidates series. In our special section, candidates from the Marfa City Council race share their positions on many issues locals care about, and candidates from Texas Senate districts 19 and 29 discuss their goals for helping West Texans while serving in the statehouse. We also dive into what the one proposition currently on the city ballot would mean for Marfa, if it passes or fails.

In Marfa, three city council seats are up for grabs, and four candidates are vying for a spot. Eddie Pallarez and Stephen Boelter would be council newcomers, while incumbents Buck Johnston and Yoseff Ben-Yehuda are hoping to retain their seats. Previously, incumbent Natalie Melendez had filed to run, but later withdrew from the race, meaning council will gain at least one new face this November.

In Texas’ Senate District 29, longtime State Senator José Rodríguez is retiring, leaving current State Representative César Blanco and business owner Bethany Hatch to duke it out. And in neighboring Texas Senate District 19, incumbent Pete Flores is challenged by current State Representative Roland Gutierrez. The competitors for state senate discussed COVID-19, economic development and serving our unique, remote population while in Austin.

MARFA CITY COUNCIL

YOSEFF BEN-YEHUDA

What is the most pressing issue facing Marfa today, and what projects would be your top priorities as a council member?

The most pressing issue facing Marfa today is how our community chooses to adapt and grow. Central to this are quality of life and the economic opportunities available to us living here. While there are always problems and things to take issue with, the most important tools we have as a council and community are Planning and Follow Through. Change is inevitable, but there is great value in being vocal about what we want and working together on it, rather than prioritizing what we want to avoid. During my first year on council I have focused on infrastructure planning and improving the city’s communication with the public. We have major street improvement projects planned for the coming year, and the city has expanded its social media and other online communication tools. I plan on continuing to pursue these goals during my next term.

At times, the city has had issues with collecting payments, from utility bills to HOT payments. How would you address this issue and make sure that going forward, the city is collecting money due to the city?

The City of Marfa has approx 40 employees including part-time positions. They operate everything from our sewers, emergency medical services, library, nutrition center, police department, recycling center, water and gas departments and more! The administrative staff is responsible for supporting all of these departments. We’ve had an unfilled accountant position for several years, demonstrating some of the challenges to hiring experienced personnel as a remote employer. This is all to say there are a lot of moving pieces that city staff tries to keep working every day and it is inevitable that it won’t always be perfect. There are opportunities for us to further modernize city hall, leveraging technology and streamlining our processes, but these kinds of changes do take consensus, time, planning and resources. At the end of the day, council’s fiduciary responsibility to the public is one of the most important and we must remain cognizant of this regardless of other projects at hand.

How can Marfa come out of the coronavirus crisis stronger than before?

Marfa has already proven an immense resilience through the past 12 months as we’ve all navigated the coronavirus crisis. It is no surprise to me, as Marfa has a history of perseverance and adaptation through varied times. Everyone in this town has experienced something because of this global crisis, whether it be stress, solitude, anxiety, grief, frustration; yet we’ve also seen a variety of positive responses to these times. Volunteer groups have emerged to meet new needs, local businesses have changed their models, and we’ve created new traditions despite a multitude of hardships. While safety measures tend to keep us apart, it is more important than ever for us to remain connected and communicative about our needs and desires as individuals and a collective. Now more than ever, city council should be listening and planning based on your input.

City council is currently working on a short-term rental ordinance — something that will be one of the first things you’ll vote on as a council member. What would you like to see in a rental ordinance?

City council has hosted two productive workshops developing the short-term rental ordinance with considerable public input. STR stakeholders shared valid concerns and a quick study of analogous ordinances elsewhere in the state clarifies that the legal possibilities for regulations are narrow at this time. That said, it is clear that over the past decade businesses that cater to residents have dwindled relative to those focused on visitors, and this trend has also affected housing. Today about 1 in 10 inhabited houses in Marfa are at least part-time STRs. While it’s certainly not the council’s role to try and limit the positive contribution tourism has brought to Marfa, it is important for us to facilitate an open dialogue about what options are available and what we want the nature of our R1 – Single Family Residential Zoning to be. Questions regarding enforceability arise with any new or amended ordinance, and they’re warranted, but we have to start with a clear idea of what we are trying to achieve. I’d like to see an ordinance that residents can agree will positively impact our quality of life.

STEPHEN BOELTER

What is the most pressing issue facing Marfa today, and what projects would be your top priorities as a council member?

Gentrification. I would join the current projects the council is working on such as the infrastructure improvements and the short-term rental ordinance. I would also like to work on developing unused city property to offer to the community, such as an additional park for walking paths and recreational activities, an open discussion with the citizens about an Amtrak stop in town, and work with the community to have a better understanding of their needs and concerns.

At times, the city has had issues with collecting payments, from utility bills to HOT payments. How would you address this issue and make sure that going forward, the city is collecting money due to the city?

I would look into whether the city could figure a way to create and offer a couple city positions to do the job before outsourcing to a company. I believe with proper training and opportunity for our local community we have qualified individuals.

How can Marfa come out of the coronavirus crisis stronger than before?

I’m hoping for the growth of commerce to emerge for and from our local community. As a descendent of Marfa natives, I have fond memories of a time… I know we can’t go back, however we can create a better future. ¡Sí, se puede!

City council is currently working on a short-term rental ordinance — something that will be one of the first things you’ll vote on as a council member. What would you like to see in a rental ordinance?

Proper enforcement from the city and cooperation from the short-term rental owners once the ordinance is completed.

BUCK JOHNSTON

What is the most pressing issue facing Marfa today, and what projects would be your top priorities as a council member?

Unfortunately, there are many pressing issues facing Marfa. Gentrification, property taxes, long-term rental shortage, education, loss of community, COVID, street repair, tourism over community, traffic, etc.

For me, keeping and preserving the culture of what makes this town livable is the most pressing issue. It’s a home first for me and you. We know our neighbors. We help each other. Marfa is unique because it’s a small, prosperous town. We have a great future, but only if we all benefit. We must work to keep Marfa prosperous to the people who live and work here every day. Preserving Marfa’s unique and sincere community is why I am working every day for the City of Marfa.

My immediate top priorities are: short-term rental ordinance, zoning ordinance, street repair and the USO garden project. And always being responsive and caring to every person’s concerns every day.

At times, the city has had issues with collecting payments, from utility bills to HOT payments. How would you address this issue and make sure that going forward, the city is collecting money due to the city?

The city council needs to review and update Ordinances 07-18 and 08-01 in regard to how overdue accounts are handled. With the overdue accounts, we can break those down into three categories: death, hardship and those taking advantage of the situation. Those due to death with no need for service can be disconnected and a lien should be discussed as a policy issue or not. The hardship accounts should be required to pay 25% down of money owed and work out a payment plan, in addition to their ongoing monthly payments. I have always found the city willing to work with residents. Those who can pay and are milking the system should be required to pay in full, immediately. Also, Marfa is not unique in this situation. Every city in the country is facing issues with utility payments. But Marfa has the ability to correct this issue.

I am working with Host Compliance to correct our short-term rental tax collection issues. I have helped many STR owners through the payment process and other issues. If Host Compliance does not prove satisfactory, I am interested in using HOT funds to establish an employee position with the City of Marfa to handle our STR situation.

How can Marfa come out of the coronavirus crisis stronger than before?

First, I want to say how proud I am of Mayor Baeza and the city council on the actions we have taken to protect this community in the last eight months. COVID has shown the need for strong, caring, informed and decisive leadership. Our community has come first. In every decision I have made, I have stood up for Marfa. Our entire community’s best interest has been first and foremost. I am heartened by how much this community cares for each other. We will come out of this crisis by keeping this a safe place to live and visit. We will come out of this crisis by strengthening our bonds with community, ensuring everyone’s safety and health and believing collectively we can support each other and look out for each other in whatever comes our way. I have always believed the most important thing in Marfa is to contribute. We have seen so many contributing during this time. Our contributions have been to the betterment of our small town.

Marfa will come out on the other side of this disease financially stable, but difficult conversations about our future are in order. Marfa is a small town with big city issues. What do we want Marfa to be on the other side of this pandemic?

City council is currently working on a short-term rental ordinance — something that will be one of the first things you’ll vote on as a council member. What would you like to see in a rental ordinance?

From those who have lived here all their lives, to those who recently moved here, to the visitor on the street, Marfa feels special. I hear it all the time. It will be hard to preserve this if we are an entire community of short-term rentals.

We need to preserve Marfa’s neighborhoods with peace and quiet and make sure every full-time resident can have and maintain a high quality of life. It’s a proposed document to protect our community when something goes wrong and to give thoughtful consideration moving forward.

I would like to see the Board of Adjustments involvement with variances in residential neighborhoods. It gets the STR owner and their neighbors in a discussion about expectations and needs before moving forward. I am not advocating a ban on STRs. I have a STR but, over the last year, have reconsidered how it impacts this community.

EDDIE PALLAREZ

What is the most pressing issue facing Marfa today, and what projects would be your top priorities as a council member? 

COVID-19 is the most pressing issue facing Marfa and our county, staying safe should be a priority to our community. We can all do our part by wearing a mask and physical distancing. I’ve kept up with some of the issues facing Marfa today, however, not being able to attend monthly meetings, I really don’t know enough about the facts to comment. My focus will probably be in work ethics, personnel safety and well-being for all city employees.

At times, the city has had issues with collecting payments, from utility bills to HOT payments. How would you address this issue and make sure that going forward, the city is collecting money due to the city? 

Unfortunately, if the customer doesn’t pay their personal or business account, it needs to be disconnected.

How can Marfa come out of the coronavirus crisis stronger than before? 

Follow the science guidelines and listen to the doctors and experts (CDC) on the COVID-19 pandemic. Open restaurants and local businesses when it’s absolutely safe to do so.

City council is currently working on a short-term rental ordinance — something that will be one of the first things you’ll vote on as a council member. What would you like to see in a rental ordinance? 

Obviously an ordinance needs to be addressed for certain issues like noise and parking. I’ll learn more about Airbnb issues if elected.

 

TEXAS SENATE DISTRICT 29

CÉSAR BLANCO (D)

What is your number one priority in office, and how will it impact local residents?

Now more than ever, West Texas needs a leader willing to rise above politics to put our people first and get things done.

The issue at the forefront of everyone’s mind is COVID-19. The pandemic has impacted every aspect of our lives. We need to keep West Texas safe and strong. The recovery from the pandemic is my top priority. That means ensuring people have access to quality and affordable healthcare, protecting our seniors, supporting small businesses and displaced workers, making sure our students, teachers and staff are safe when they return to the classroom, creating a statewide pandemic playbook that follows science, and making sure hard-hit regions and disproportionately impacted communities have equitable access to future COVID-19 vaccines.

Our region is off the major interstates and has fewer than 20,000 residents. Once in office, you will represent large swaths of Texas. How will you ensure our voices are heard and our needs represented?

I had the honor of working for members of Congress who represented West Texas. I know the leaders, not only the elected officials, but also the community leaders. I understand the issues that are unique to rural areas.

If elected, I will continue the same community outreach efforts that I do as a state representative. We will have open lines of communication, community outreach and regular visits to the region. We will also explore the use of video-conferencing and utilizing technology to connect constituents with our district and capitol offices. I believe that an elected official needs to be accessible to their constituents, and I will always have an open door for my constituents and be responsive to correspondence.

Many residents in this district have to travel more than 90 miles to access specialty and critical care. Some older residents even move away for this reason. Do you have a plan to make healthcare more affordable, more accessible and less confusing for residents, and what role do you think the government should play?

Passing Medicaid expansion in Texas could be one of the most effective tools to address the health and economic impacts caused by COVID-19. It would return Texas taxpayer dollars to our state to the tune of $10 billion per year and can provide health insurance to over 1.7 million uninsured families all across Texas. Since 2010, Texas has closed more hospitals than any other state in the nation, at least 20 of which were rural, because Republicans refused to expand Medicaid. Expanding Medicaid will help keep the lights on in rural hospitals to ensure rural Texas has access to critical medical care.

I will also push to permanently expand telemedicine options. This will help patients continue treatments and appointments over the phone or virtually while staying safe, and we’ll make sure our doctors and care providers are compensated fairly so they can continue to see patients remotely.  As the State of Texas continues to respond to COVID-19 and maintain regular healthcare services and operations throughout the state, telemedicine is one of the most valuable tools we have to ensure Texans continue to receive the health services they need.

West Texas and El Paso are a designated Health Professional Shortage Area. As state senator, I would continue to fight for full funding of our local medical, dental and nursing schools and programs at SRSU, TTUHSCEP, UTEP  and EPCC to improve access to health professionals in the region.

A recent study showed Presidio County had some of the biggest population declines among cities in Texas, as residents leave for better job opportunities and more affordable housing. What’s your plan to ensure that longtime residents and families can thrive here?

Improving public education, access to healthcare, transportation, water infrastructure and broadband connectivity can help longtime residents and families thrive in Presidio County and rural Texas, and these issues will be a priority for me in the Texas Senate.

Last session I co-authored and helped pass House Bill 3 to provide $4.5 billion in student-centered education reforms, $5 billion for property tax relief and $2 billion for dynamic raises for hardworking teachers. We need to continue these historic investments in public education and oppose private school vouchers.

To increase access to healthcare, I will fight for Medicaid expansion to provide coverage for 1.7 million Texans and help keep rural hospitals open, expand telemedicine options and invest in our medical, dental and nursing programs at SRSU, TTUHSCEP, UTEP and EPCC.

To improve mobility and transportation safety in West Texas, I will support the US 67 Master Plan, which was developed in coordination with the counties and communities along the highway, to identify short- and long-term goals for the region.

Texas is well overdue for a state broadband plan, and I believe the state needs to begin the process of creating one immediately to help connect our rural communities to high-speed internet.

Water supports jobs and is the livelihood of farmers, industry and rural communities. I support Texas’ efforts to ensure Texas is receiving its fair share of water under the Rio Grande Compact with New Mexico and the 1944 Water Treaty with Mexico, and makes investment in water infrastructure projects.

The coronavirus crisis has presented major challenges not only to public safety but to the local economy. How can the region protect businesses and workers without compromising public health? And how will you make sure the Big Bend region has adequate resources to handle this crisis, from testing and contact tracing to protective equipment?

COVID-19 has impacted every facet of our lives. The health and safety of Texans should be our top priority. We are all in this together and need to work together to protect our community, and that means following the advice of science and public health experts, not political agendas.

As a state representative I have worked hand-in-hand with local officials to make sure the state is responsive to local needs. For example, weeks ago when COVID-19 cases started to go up in El Paso again, I wrote a letter to Governor Abbott requesting flexibility and resources for our community to address our unique challenges. Days later, Governor Abbott surged medical personnel and personal protective equipment (PPE) to the area to assist our community.

This past week I also wrote a letter to the Task Force on Infectious Disease Preparedness and Response to ensure hard-hit regions and disproportionately impacted communities are not left behind in future COVID-19 vaccine allocation and distribution plans.

As state senator, I will continue to work with our local officials and foster relationships with state leaders to ensure the state is responsive to our requests.

BETHANY HATCH (R)

What is your number one priority in office, and how will it impact local residents?

To pick one priority is difficult when the district has incredibly diverse needs. From tax to education reform and tackling the water issues that our rural counties are facing, there are many topics that are so important to residents throughout the district. Because the needs vary so much, it is important that we take on the top priorities for each county. However, one thing that is common throughout all the counties is the need for economic growth. Our district has incredible, hard-working people that want more jobs and opportunity to come to West Texas. The rest of Texas has a booming economy and incredible opportunity, and we need to bring that to our district. As a small business owner, I have the experience needed to bring economic growth that we so desperately need in our community.

Our region is off the major interstates and has fewer than 20,000 residents. Once in office, you will represent large swaths of Texas. How will you ensure our voices are heard and our needs represented?

I plan to use technology to enable more residents of Senate District 29 to share their concerns. We’re a long way from Austin, and I want to make sure that our residents can get in touch with me or my office whenever an issue arises. I also will hold regular town halls throughout the counties in our district. It’s impossible to represent residents of such diverse counties if there is not constant communication between the representative and the community. I will also make sure we train any interested residents on how they can be more involved in the legislative process. The Texas Legislature has incredible technology that allows any resident to track bills, set alerts and see the progress of legislation they find important. Then, each resident will be able to contact our office in Austin and let us know what they think of any bill that is being discussed and how they want me to vote. We need to utilize that and give the residents of this district a way to be more involved with what’s happening at the Capitol.

Many residents in this district have to travel more than 90 miles to access specialty and critical care. Some older residents even move away for this reason. Do you have a plan to make healthcare more affordable, more accessible and less confusing for residents, and what role do you think the government should play?

We need to deregulate our healthcare system so that more qualified healthcare providers can operate throughout the state. Rural Texas has a huge need for more accessible options, and by requiring medical professionals to adhere to unnecessary regulations, it is too difficult for them to offer more affordable and accessible options. The government needs to get out of the way of medical professionals and allow patients and doctors to take control of their healthcare. One option could be allowing for reciprocity on licensing. If a medical professional is licensed in another state, then Texas should make it easier for that person to practice here. If we make it less expensive and time consuming for a trained medical professional from another state to offer their services when they move here, then we will see an increase in access to healthcare across the state.

A recent study showed Presidio County had some of the biggest population declines among cities in Texas, as residents leave for better job opportunities and more affordable housing. What’s your plan to ensure that longtime residents and families can thrive here?

We need tax reform and economic development in this district. The larger cities throughout the state constantly receive more attention from our elected officials, and more jobs go to those cities. It’s time that we have someone fight to bring those jobs to West Texas. Presidio County shouldn’t be losing population. We should be working to increase economic development and job growth by incentivizing companies to choose counties that have been ignored for too long. I have worked in the private sector for over a decade and owned my own business for six years. I have the experience we need to bring more jobs and opportunity to our district.

The coronavirus crisis has presented major challenges not only to public safety but to the local economy. How can the region protect businesses and workers without compromising public health? And how will you make sure the Big Bend region has adequate resources to handle this crisis, from testing and contact tracing to protective equipment?

Every paycheck is essential to somebody, and the government should allow businesses to develop smart and safe procedures that allow them to operate without compromising safety. State officials should serve as a stabilizing force for their citizens, and as a supporting force teamed with our state healthcare system. COVID has definitely increased public awareness regarding proper hygiene, distancing and overall public health. And it has also forced businesses to look at ways to continue operations by exploring new, innovative approaches to accomplish company services.  While reinforcing our public healthcare system to stay ahead of COVID, we must be mindful of the effects government decisions have on business owners and the state economy. Texans are resilient, innovative and completely capable of making adjustments where needed.

TEXAS SENATE DISTRICT 19

ROLAND GUTIERREZ (D)

What is your number one priority in office, and how will it impact local residents?

My number one priority is to expand healthcare in Texas. We are the most uninsured state and that can be easily changed. In these uncertain times, we need to lower the income threshold required to be eligible for Medicaid so that working families as well as lower income people can have access to quality healthcare. People are losing their jobs and the benefits that come with it. Some people never had those benefits to begin with. We need to change that, especially in light of this dangerous pandemic.

Our region is off the major interstates and has fewer than 20,000 residents. Once in office, you will represent large swaths of Texas. How will you ensure our voices are heard and our needs represented?

Above all, I want to make sure to establish a presence in these 17 counties rather than just focus on Bexar and other big boxes. I have plans to make many visits throughout District 19, meeting with local leaders and citizens so that they can rest easy, knowing that they are being represented with dignity and respect. As you know, this area is fairly large and the area is bigger than some states. My team and I are exploring ways to close that representation gap with creative uses of technology and senatorial liaisons in addition to those personal visits.

Many residents in this district have to travel more than 90 miles to access specialty and critical care. Some older residents even move away for this reason. Do you have a plan to make healthcare more affordable, more accessible and less confusing for residents, and what role do you think the government should play?

As mentioned before, I intend to push for Medicaid expansion which will make overall access to healthcare much easier. I absolutely believe that we need to work with the federal government to make this happen. For every dollar Texas spends on Medicaid, the federal government spends $9. This is free money just sitting there on the table. We need to incentivize healthcare providers and medical personnel to establish a presence in rural areas so that we can increase the level of care. We also need to expand the use of telemedicine so that routine care and preventative maintenance is more accessible.

Our area has had some of the biggest population declines among cities in Texas, as residents leave for better job opportunities and more affordable housing. What’s your plan to ensure that longtime residents and families can thrive here?

We need to bring high quality jobs back to the region. This can be accomplished in a few ways. First, we need to legalize gaming in Texas. We can add 13 destination hotels and casinos right here in the state and stop losing business to Oklahoma and Louisiana. Secondly, we need to legalize cannabis in the state of Texas. We can add thousands of farming jobs and thousands more ancillary jobs around this industry. In addition, the tax revenues collected from these two industries would greatly bolster our underfunded education system.

The coronavirus crisis has presented major challenges not only to public safety but to the local economy. How can the region protect businesses and workers without compromising public health? And how will you make sure the Big Bend region has adequate resources to handle this crisis, from testing and contact tracing to protective equipment?

This whole time what we have sorely lacked is confidence that government will do the right thing and help businesses and citizens, because the government has failed to do so. While certain shutdown measures were necessary, there were arbitrary reopening schedules that were out of whack with what was actually happening in the state. What we should have done is communicated with counties about the severity of the pandemic and provided support. Going forward we need to make protective equipment materials accessible so that businesses can thrive and people can stay safe and healthy. We need to make sure that access to free, rapid testing is available everywhere so that counties have the data they need to keep tabs on COVID. The infrastructure for contact tracing must be robust and swift, especially as we enter cold and flu season. Businesses need access to zero-to-low interest loans to stay open and keep people on payroll. As state senator, I will make sure that we are in constant contact with our counties and ready to deploy resources at a moment’s notice.

Though a top aide acknowledged The Big Bend Sentinel’s request, Pete Flores (R), candidate and incumbent to Texas’ SD-19, did not complete the questionnaire.


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